There was a rare positive piece of prison news last week, as government research into prison education showed that prisoners who spend their time studying through distance learning are significantly more successful in securing work after release.
Researchers from the Ministry of Justice’s Data Lab compared prospects for prisoners of similar ages, ethnicities and sentence lengths. They found that those who were funded by the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) were more likely to get jobs after release, and spent less time on benefits.
In some sense, the results are scarcely surprising. Is it any real shock that prisoners with the drive and support to study in their own time in prison are also more successful in getting jobs? It is certainly no surprise to us at PET, a charity that provides the funding for courses in levels and subjects not usually available in prison.
'Stories matter, but so do statistics'
We know of many examples of former prisoners who are using skills and qualifications gained during their sentence to find jobs and build better futures. This is at a time when far too few prisoners on release succeed in getting paid employment even a year after release from prison – less than one in five.
Two years ago, for example, we funded 25-year-old Egerton for an Open University access course. He is now working as a business analyst in the financial sector and as a project facilitator at a leading social justice charity.
Egerton said: "Managing to come out of prison with a qualification funded by PET was reaffirming to me, reinforcing my belief that I could achieve something even through difficult circumstances. But what really astounded me was how much employers really valued what I had achieved.”
Stories like this matter, but so do statistics. The government’s research provides hard-edged, quantified analysis of the impact of our work, drawing on data held by HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, and involving a sample of tens of thousands.
Courses 'cost peanuts' in comparison
It complements previous research that attributed PET funding to a 25 per cent reduction in the risk of reoffending. Together, the two sets of statistics present a compelling argument for the value of education in prisons.
And we are good value. The cost of current reoffending rates to society is enormous: government estimates the cost each and every year from prisoners reoffending at an eye-watering £15 billion.
The education PET offers costs peanuts in comparison – a few hundred pounds for each course. People supported by the charity cost society less because they commit less crime, and because they also make fewer demands on out-of-work benefits and contribute more to the economy and taxation through employment.
Yet every month PET has to turn down applications from prisoners for courses that we would like to fund because we lack the money to pay for them.
The numbers of applications we receive are only scratching the surface of the potential demand for distance learning. On top of the 3,000 prisoners a year funded by PET, there are countless others who would benefit from specialised, higher-level courses that will help them succeed in today’s job market in a way that a basic qualification in English or maths simply will not.
These latest statistical results don’t merely confirm our vague beliefs that education probably helps people get work. They provide a quantified challenge to us, to people working in prison education and to policymakers.
We know how to increase employment prospects for prisoners on release and how to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. We know that the costs are substantially outweighed by the benefits.
The Ministry of Justice is introducing a new landscape for how prison education operates from April next year, in which prison governors will have much more say over how money is spent. The ministry must ensure that the budgets are at the very least maintained and that governors are encouraged to use them to their full potential.
The evidence is there, and we are looking forward to helping to apply it.
Rod Clark is chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust